Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002) is not merely an exercise in technique; with the single take that comprises it, Russian Ark, perhaps more than any other film, illustrates film’s capacity to convey the presence of time and space within reality through image. It is Bazin’s dream come alive: the film is a molding of space, an imprint of duration, an expression of regeneration without relying on origination (something like what Malick does). As the camera conveys the viewer through space and time, a liberation of the highest kind is afforded; one becomes immersed in the dead world of things, permitted to omnisciently observe the reality of it.
The viewer is dead; the European, who died many years earlier, is a fellow traveler through the unencumbered past. Led entirely through his point of view, the viewer does not becomes the narrator: the viewer is the narrator. Awakened in a strange, unfamiliar place of the past, what else can one do but walk about and observe the happenings? Being noticed at times, and ignored at others, the narrator—viewer—recognizes his lack of belonging to this world. He quietly moves about so as not to disturb the situation. He is a ghost; he is invisible; he is dead (to the world); he is alive (to reality). In a sense, the viewer too is a ghost, invisible, dead, and alive. While the European interacts with the people, the narrator leaves the presence of the past in tact; he is a God visiting reality and observing its occurrences. What he views is life, yet it is not truly alive. Only he and the European truly have freedoms; only he and the European may do as they wish; everyone else is fulfilling their role in the past, in life, in time.
Man’s destiny, however, is in being alive. In the words of Tarkovsky, death doesn’t exist; we are all in a sense immortal. Sokurov illuminates this understanding for us. It is through death that liberation is found. While the dead world of things is given life through its conversation with the reality of the travelers—for example the boy who is truly alive when frightened by the European—the travelers exist in the unbounded presence of actuality. Moving between rooms that express changes in time and space, yet captured in a single take that expresses all that is encompassed in the immovable world of linearity. Reality is afforded to the viewer, yet reality has become uncanny. The world has become familiar in its unfamiliarity; it seems strange and hallucinatory yet oddly more truthful.
The narrator is attuned—sees into the eye of truth. If you allow yourself, Russian Ark will allow you the same experience. The film was made; the observations shot; reality memorized by film, a trace of the true. Then, one is placed into the film; one is placed into reality; one is placed into a memory of truth. The European is my friend, the narrator is me. When the European speaks, he speaks to me; when the narrator thinks, it is me thinking. The world I’m traveling through is not my own, but it is one that has existed for others. It was imprinted, memorized, saved in time just as the film imprints, memorizes, and saves reality. I walk through it alive but besides it; I live for it but not in it. Is it life, or am I life? It all exists for me. It all exists so I may observe it. The European seems to be aware of his freedoms as well, but I know only of myself as I travel through this site of the living dead.
PS: A little warning to those who might watch it. The film is one long take (96 minutes), and a lot of people just see it as a glamorous and impressive film (choreographing thousands of people within 33+ rooms). It’s much more than this. But a lot of people don’t see the point, or rather, don’t allow themselves to fall into the mesmerizing spell the film is casting. Content wise (the history and such), looked at objectively, it is rather boring. But the content really doesn’t matter so much. It’s the presence of history, not the content of it that is fascinating. So if you’re not into it, you’ll probably be bored. The film is not for the faint of heart.